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FCC Trying to Catch Up with Mid-band 5G Spectrum

Randy Sukow Jul 12, 2018

Commissioner Brandon Carr delivered the good news this morning during the FCC’s monthly agenda meeting: “In the race to 5G, we have now freed up more spectrum than any other country.”

A few minutes later, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel delivered the “but …”

“The United States is not in the lead when it comes to making mid-band spectrum available for next-generation 5G networks,” she said. However, she agreed that the FCC’s unanimous vote this morning to promote flexible use of the band between 3.7 and 4.2 GHz is a good start toward remedying the problem.

The economic activity 5G networks are likely to generate have governments and companies around the world pushing to clear adequate amounts of spectrum. The FCC for the past year has been well ahead of other countries setting aside millimeter-band spectrum above 24 GHz multiple proceedings. But other countries are concentrating lower bands, which in the United States, other, well-established users often occupy.

In recent months, the Commission has turned its attention toward the “mid-band” issue. In May, it began to craft rules for 5G operations in the 2.5 GHz band with spectrum occupied by the underutilized Educational Broadband Service (EBS). This morning’s Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking aim to find ways for 5G providers to co-exist with C-band satellite operations at 3.7-4.2 GHz.

Rosenworcel described how far behind the U.S. is to some other countries on mid-band spectrum allocation and assignment. “You can start with South Korea which just wrapped up an auction last month. You can also look at the United Kingdom, which auctioned 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz bands earlier this year. And in Spain the process of auctioning 200 MHz of spectrum and 3.6-3.8 GHz band is underway,” she said. “And just this morning, Italy announced on September 10th it will kick off and auction of 200 MHz in 3.6-3.8 GHz band.”

The recently FCC’s adopted 2.5 GHz and 3.7-4.2 GHz proceedings are at the rulemaking stage. It could two years or more before those bands are ready for auctions.

With that in mind, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly argued for faster action on mid-band reallocation and to be certain the Commission allocates enough spectrum. “In my mind that's far more than 100 MHz initially proposed by the satellite providers,” he said. “I’ve advocated for 200-300 MHz with a serious review to release even more.”

The order section of today’s action sets a process for collecting data about currently operating fixed satellite earth stations to evaluate potential spectrum sharing. The rulemaking proposes reallocating 3.7-4.2 GHz, currently limited to fixed services, to a “mobile” designation. It also asks questions about a potential “marketplace-approach” to spectrum sharing in which current fixed satellite licensees clear part of their holdings for compensation.

Meanwhile, some mobile phone providers have said that they will begin offering commercial 5G service on existing bands before the end of this year. Also, according to published reports, the FCC could be ready to vote on rules for the first 5G high-band auctions by next month.

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